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Laser weapons: A distant target

Boeing and Northrop Grumman report progress in their work toward a tactical laser weapon for the Army, but don't look for it in the field anytime soon.

Laser technology may yet yield the weapons of the not-so-distant future, but the future is certainly not now.

For the moment, it's all R&D business as usual. Earlier this week, both Boeing and Northrop Grumman put out statements about their ongoing work on U.S. Army's High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator, or HEL TD. And for Boeing, it was also a chance to crow about a contract win: $36 million to continue its work on a HEL TD design.

HEL TD image
The work on the HEL TD is intended to lead eventually to a truck-mounted laser weapon that could shoot down rockets and artillery shells. Boeing

With that money, Boeing says it will first finish its design work, and then move on to building and testing a ruggedized beam control system on a heavy-duty truck (specifically, the Army's Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck). The defense contractor finished the preliminary design of the beam control system earlier this summer. Boeing also plans to develop the systems-engineering requirements for the complete HEL TD laser weapon system.

Northrop Grumman, for its part, this week said that it has completed all preliminary design review requirements for a rugged beam control subsystem for the HEL TD.

Testing of the beam control systems, with low-power lasers, is expected to take place somewhere around 2010.

Eventually, the HEL TD work will be joined up with the work being done separately on a high-energy solid-state laser--the namesake element of the laser weapon system. The SSL is expected to be in the 100-kilowatt class.

But the lead times are long on projects like this. "Due to resource constraints, we are targeting somewhere in 2016 time frame for a limited deployable system," said Bill Gnacek, HEL TD program manager for the U.S. Army.

The laser weapons platform that emerges from the HEL TD program is intended to target rockets, artillery shells, and mortar rounds.

Boeing is also working on a similar project called the Laser Avenger--a Humvee-mounted laser weapon system that would direct its light beam at more Earth-bound targets such as roadside bombs and other unexploded ordnance. The Laser Avenger, a variation on the existing, Stinger-missile-equipped Avenger air defense system, is internally funded by Boeing.

August has been something of a landmark occasion for Boeing and its laser weapons projects, which have been notable for their slow progress. Earlier this month, the company said it had done the first ground test of the entire weapon system in its Airborne Tactical Laser aircraft, which fired its high-energy chemical laser through its beam control system. Boeing expects to fire the laser in flight at a ground target before the end of this year.